Thursday, November 4, 1999
Vimy Ridge a watershed in Canada's history
There are few contemporary reminders of a conflict that shook the world, shattered the foundations of an international order that had lasted almost a century and drew a dark and bloodstained curtain between eras.
It was a war that changed Canada in this century from a meek colony to a nation insistent on its dignity and its own place in the peace.
The official Canadian history says of the soldiers:
"They fought as Canadians and those who returned brought back with them a pride of nationhood that they had not known before."
But today as we approach the last Remembrance Day before the year 2000, the war is a long-ago shadow.
The 60,000 Canadian war dead lie, for the most part, in neatly groomed cemeteries far from home in France and Belgium.
Survivors have dwindled to a handful of centenarians
The war memorials raised in the post-war years were dragooned, a generation later, into doubling as monuments to the Second World War and, still later, for Korea.
Even the ubiquitous, blood-red poppies of November are as much a symbol of tradition as of remembrance.
Yet on a gently sloping hillside in northwestern France stands a soaring white monument marking one of Canada's greatest military triumphs, a victory which many say helped turn a colony into a nation. The great spires of the monument are set in a plot of land granted to Canada by France in 1922, their shadows stretching along a shallow escarpment known as Vimy Ridge.
In the spring of 1917, the First World War was 21/2 years old. The casualty lists on both sides ran into the millions. Europe was split by a meandering line of trenches that ran non-stop from the Swiss border to the North Sea.
In those trenches, hundreds of thousands of Canadians, Britons, Belgians, Frenchmen, Australians and Germans lived cold, wet lives of misery punctuated by moments of wrenching terror.
Horror had become commonplace. Slaughter had become mundane.
In battle after battle, thousands died for gains measured in yards. On the Somme, on July 1, 1916, the British army suffered the single worst day in its long and pugnacious history, losing 60,000 men killed, wounded and missing. Most were gone in the first hours of a massive frontal attack that saw men climb out of the trenches and march, shoulder-to-shoulder, into the sights of chattering machine-guns which cut them down like standing hay.
By the time the battle petered out more than four months later, the total casualties on both sides amounted to an estimated 1.3 million, including 24,000 Canadians.
The problem was that trench lines were practically impenetrable by the technology and tactics of the time. There were no tanks to cross the trenches, no man-portable radios to co-ordinate attacks, no artillery suitable for cutting barbed wire and smashing strong points and no way to move artillery across the battlefield except by horse and manpower.
Trenches were studded with machine-guns ready to sweep the open ground between the lines and chop attacking forces to pieces. Artillery behind the lines was pre-sighted to drop bombardments on the advancing enemy.
Barbed wire slowed attacks to a crawl, or channelled them into killing grounds under the machine-gun muzzles. Men were chopped up by bullets, shredded by exploding shells, suffocated by gas, incinerated by flame throwers, smothered by caved-in trenches.
In the trenches, soldiers lived lives of filth and misery. "It was like living in a ditch summer and winter," one veteran recalled years later.
Crude dugouts hacked into the trench sides provided sleeping niches for exhausted men. In wet weather, they lived knee-deep in liquid mud. In some places, the dead of previous battles were built into the parapets themselves, slowly rotting away before the eyes of their former comrades.
Disease was rampant. Fleas and lice infected men with a variety of low-grade fevers, collectively known as trench fever. Constant immersion in cold water left men with trench foot, a condition that could lead to amputation.
A monotonous diet of corned beef, hard biscuit, bland jam and sweetened tea made men susceptible to boils and other skin conditions.
One of the few pleasures available was the tot of overproof rum, although some commanders reserved this for the moments before an attack. One officer even banned rum, offering his disgruntled men hot pea soup as a much-maligned substitute.
The very soil of Flanders was dangerous. Fertilized with manure for generations, it harboured germs that could easily contaminate wounds and cause gas gangrene, a ghastly and often-fatal peril in the pre-antiseptic era.
The sticky mud of Flanders was a constant drain on the strength of the soldiers. A military greatcoat caked with mud could weigh 50 kilograms. When men hacked off the skirts of their overcoats to cut the weight, they could find themselves charged with destroying government property.
On top of all these mundane threats was the enemy. While some sectors were quiet, with both sides taking a live-and-let-live attitude, many commanders were determined to make the enemy's life as hellish as possible.
Snipers watched for an unwary head poking over the parapet. Artillery, ranging from rifle-launched grenades to 10-kilo field shells to blockbusters rained down on both sides of the lines, often in random barrages.
The soldiers identified the various calibres. There were high-velocity whiz-bangs and coal boxes that burst in a deep black cloud. The Jack Johnson, a particularly big shell, bore the name of a heavyweight boxing champ of the day.
Each week along the Western Front, even when there were no major battles raging, hundreds of men were killed and wounded in what was known by the callous phrase, "normal wastage."
In 1917, the British and French brass, mesmerized by a charismatic French commander, Gen. Robert-Georges Nivelle, bought his plan for a mighty knockout blow to end the war. The Allied armies would slice across a German-held bulge in the front and then run riot across the rear areas.
Between the French and British areas lay Vimy Ridge. Although it rose barely 150 metres above sea level, it dominated the lowlands in front of it.
It was a fortress, studded with concrete pillboxes, deep dugouts and trenches. It was festooned with barbed wire and guns were aimed in interlocking patterns across the long slope. Previous attacks by the British and the French had cost 190,000 casualties, without budging the Germans from their ridge.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig decided that he couldn't leave this thorn in the flank of his spring offensive. He told the Canadian Corps to take it.
Canada had managed to keep its four divisions together through the war, despite British attempts to break up the formations and feed the men into British divisions as reinforcements. The decision to keep the Canadians together proved to be a wise one in terms of maintaining morale and esprit de corps.
"It is impossible to overrate the advantages which accrued to the Canadian Corps from the close and constant association of all four divisions with the others," Australian Gen. Sir John Monash wrote after the war. "This was the prime factor in achieving the brilliant conquest of Vimy Ridge."
The Canadians were commanded by British Gen. Julian Byng, later a Governor General. By all accounts, they liked this unassuming, professional soldier.
He was no stickler for dress (he was once reprimanded by the King for wearing old, worn uniforms) and was easygoing about such things as salutes.
"He carries his hand in his pocket and returns a salute by lifting his hand as far as the pocket will allow," one Canadian wrote of Byng in a letter home.
Byng was no slacker, though, when it came to fighting. He and his chief Canadian lieutenant, Major-Gen. Arthur Currie (later Gen. Sir Arthur Currie), stressed planning and preparation.
They insisted that every soldier know where he was going and what landmarks to aim for. Men rehearsed their attacks using rear area fields laid out like their objectives.
The concept of attacking in waves disappeared and was replaced with rushes by small platoons. The platoons included light machine-guns and men laden with hand grenades. They were trained to move around strong points and attack from the flank or rear.
Byng was also a stickler for artillery and he had an expert gunner in Andy McNaughton, a McGill University professor who brought science to bear on the art of war.
McNaughton used every available piece of technology to locate enemy guns and smash them. Flash spotters along the line pinpointed the firing of German guns and phoned in bearings, which were plotted to locate the artillery. Primitive oscilloscopes and microphones were used to detect the sound of enemy guns and map their locations.
McNaughton developed a way to measure wear and tear on cannon barrels, which helped keep them accurate.
"You Canadians take all the fun out of war," one British officer commented.
Almost 1,000 guns were aimed at the ridge. Canadians used machine-guns as a sort of light artillery, firing storms of bullets to harass roads in the German rear, prevent supply deliveries and generally keep the enemy heads down.
Engineers, known as sappers, performed prodigious feats.
The official history says they built 40 kilometres of roads, and 30 kilometres of light railway, laid 70 kilometres of water pipe and over 150 kilometres of signal wire. They dug seven kilometres of tunnels from safe rear areas to the front lines to keep troops safely under cover until the last moments. One of the tunnels could hide 1,000 men.
When preparations were complete, on April 2, the artillery opened up with a bombardment that one soldier described as sweeping "over our heads like water from a hose, thousands and thousands a day."
Surviving Germans would describe this barrage of more than a million shells, 50,000 tonnes of explosives as "the week of suffering."
Their trenches collapsed. Supply parties couldn't come forward. Soldiers lived on cold rations. Eighty per cent of their artillery was knocked out. The guns pounded for seven days, then slackened off.
At 4 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, the Canadians moved into the jump-off areas, each man fortified by a shot of rum and a hot meal. At 5:30 a.m., 983 guns opened up, along with 150 machine-guns.
With a wind driving snow and sleet at their backs and into the faces of the Germans, the Canadian infantry moved up the ridge, clambering over shell craters, torn wire entanglements and vast pools of sticky mud churned up by the bombardment.
They swarmed up the slope, bombing the Germans out of their dugouts with grenades, sending prisoners stumbling down behind them. Training and rehearsals paid off. As officers fell, sergeants took over. When they were hit, corporals and privates went on.
Four Canadians would win the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour, on the ridge. Only one survived the war.
By April 12, the Germans had abandoned the ridge, falling back to the plain behind. They held only one bump at the north end, known as the Pimple. Brig.-Gen. Edward Hilliam, a former Alberta rancher, led his 10th brigade against the stronghold and, in an hour, threw the Prussian Guard Grenadiers out. He signed his report, "Lord Pimple."
The overall Allied offensive was a failure, but Vimy glowed as a triumph amid tragedy.
Historians say that the seeds of Canadian nationhood were planted at Vimy, watered with the blood of 10,000 dead and wounded.
The war would drag on for another 20 months and thousands more Canadians would die. But when the survivors returned home, they and their countrymen would consider that Canada's right to be a nation had been bought and paid for.